In the answer to Examine function extreme values the user dfeuer used the pronouns "zie" and "hir" which were edited to "they" and "them" by the user Matt (please regard the edit history).

Obviously, the original user does not like it. I have rolled back the edit, because I feel that this should be discussed here before.

Note that I personally prefer the second version for the simple reason that it is both gender-neutral and also understandable for foreigners who don't know these new pronouns. But I also feel that it should be discussed on meta AND each such edit should be accompanied by a link to the discussion. Everything else will lead to problems in my opinion.

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    $\begingroup$ FYI: "zie" and "hir" aren't English words. $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2011 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt Please post this as answer, so that people can vote and comment. $\endgroup$
    – Phira
    Dec 4, 2011 at 10:17
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    $\begingroup$ See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivak_pronoun $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2011 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Phira: I refuse. (more characters) $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2011 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ This also came up on Christianity.SE, where the consensus was to use standard pronouns. $\endgroup$
    – user9733
    Dec 4, 2011 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Fabian So you suggest to link to the meta on christianity.se to justify an edit? $\endgroup$
    – Phira
    Dec 4, 2011 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ Christianity.SE is a different site, Math.SE should come up with its own policy on the matter. But I thought it would be helpful to see the previous meta discussion. $\endgroup$
    – user9733
    Dec 4, 2011 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Fabian I agree. I do think that it is helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Phira
    Dec 4, 2011 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ I voted to close. "this question will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion." $\endgroup$
    – t.b.
    Dec 4, 2011 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ @t.b. Well, this is meta, and the tag is discussion, so yes, this question will likely solicit discussion because I don't want to have this discussion on the main site after edits. I certainly hope that you will vote to close all discussions on meta. $\endgroup$
    – Phira
    Dec 4, 2011 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ extended discussion. $\endgroup$
    – t.b.
    Dec 4, 2011 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ @t.b. So, if you don't want any discussion because this would lead to extended discussion, I suppose that you expect disagreement over the treatment of these pronouns. If you expect disagreement, what do you expect to happen the next time this disagreement turns up on main? In other words, what is your alternative to a meta discussion for resolution of differing opinions? Should we let Jeff decide? $\endgroup$
    – Phira
    Dec 4, 2011 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak No, the second version (which was Matt's edit that I rolled back) was the use of "they". $\endgroup$
    – Phira
    Dec 4, 2011 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Phira: Thanks for the correction. (I should have noticed that.) I'm going to delete the original comment and post a corrected one, so that this comment does not cause confusion. And if you decide to post an answer, I will delete both my comments - they will be no longer relevant, and the comment section here is getting too full anyway. $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2011 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ IMHO it is not clear whether the downvoters object against "I personally prefer the second version" or against "But I also feel that it should be discussed on meta". (From some of the comments I have the feeling that it is mostly the first.) If the votes cannot be interpreted clearly enough, it will not be clear what the consensus in the community is. If I understood your post correctly, you suggest using they/them and not zie/hir. Perhaps if you posted this suggestion as an answer, people could upvote/downvote it and the meaning of these votes would be clear enough. $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2011 at 14:25

6 Answers 6


Providing different viewpoint, which users can upvote/downvote to show their opinion:

It is not necessary for us to have a policy on the matter of using gender-neutral pronouns.

Arguments for this:

  • Many users (such as me) are not native English speakers. If some consensus about this question is accepted, I am not sure whether I will be able to use gender-neutral phrases correctly. (This first point is probably not that important, since nobody is suggesting that using them should be "compulsory".)

  • Understanding and mathematical content matters here much more than wording. I believe that if someone don't understands the words, he can either ask or google. I don't think this is going to cause problems.

  • I don't think that this would lead to edit wars. It might happen that some user corrects the unusual pronouns (in a good faith, thinking that they were typos - which is what I believe happened in this case). Poster will be notified and the whole situation can be solved by exchanging 2 or 3 comments between the poster and user who made the edits. (And perhaps by adding link to this thread in the comments.)

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    $\begingroup$ +1. This is covered by the general rule "edits should not change meaning". Matt may not have been intending to change the meaning, but in fact did (and the OP, dfeuer, is clearly the one to judge). However, those who wish to use such pronouns will have to realize that such innocent errors are likely to happen with these unusual constructions, and be ready to correct them when they do. $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2011 at 3:06

It is already challenging to communicate mathematics clearly. It makes no sense to add to the difficulty by tolerating needlessly obfuscated grammar.

I strongly encourage everyone to edit potentially confusing non-standard English on sight (and "zie" certainly falls into that category.)

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Hear, hear! Now what to do about obfuscated mathematics, which is a much more serious problem. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2011 at 6:42

I don't understand why Phira's question has received such a negative response - this is a completely valid issue to be discussed on meta. Take, for example, this question on what our policy should be towards non-English posts. As far as I know, this is the first occurrence of highly non-standard English for the site, and we should take the opportunity to discuss what our policy should be towards it now and in the future.

My feeling is that "zie", "hir", etc. could be thought of as localized slang, or arguably just a different language altogether. Under either interpretation, I don't think we ought to ban it, but rather include "translations" as necessary (as Rahul Narain proposes we do for languages other than English). Perhaps if we edited occurrences of these words to include links to an explanation,

If your teacher is going to be vague about what zie wants, you will have to ask hir.

Or perhaps include "translations" in parentheses?

If your teacher is going to be vague about what zie wants (they want), you will have to ask hir (them).

Or footnotes?

If your teacher is going to be vague about what zie* wants, you will have to ask hir*.

*A gender-neutral pronoun for English: see here.

I'm sure there's a reasonable way of handling this. It's in the interest of gender-neutral pronoun supporters to have people actually understand what they're saying, after all.

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    $\begingroup$ It's in the interest of gender-neutral pronoun supporters to have people actually understand what they're saying — I'm not sure, actually, considering they write posts that have no chance of being understood, and leave no explanation. :-) $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2011 at 18:28

Let me propose the following general corollary to the "wiki-like nature" of the site:

If a post is written in nonstandard English or nonstandard mathematical notation, and

  • there is a risk that readers without special knowledge (unrelated to the mathematical field in question) will not understand it, and
  • it is clear and unambiguous to someone with that special knowledge what is meant (i.e., no risk of changing the meaning of the post),

then it is acceptable for someone who recognizes this to edit it into more standard English / more standard notation without further ado.

In the instant case I think there can be no serious dispute that singular "they" is more standard and understandable than synthetic coinages such as "zie". Therefore, according to the rule above, Matt's edit is appropriate, and shouldn't have been rolled back simply as a procedural quibble.

Of course, it is also likely that dfeuer used "zie" precisely because (for reasons known only to themself) they don't consider singular "they" an acceptable solution to the gender-inclusive-pronoun problem. Thus, they might consider the edit to "deface" their post, ascribing to them a linguistic choice that they don't approve of. This consideration would be stronger if dfeuer had used a full name rather than a pseudo-pseudonymous handle. But in any case it would have been safer to change to "he/she" instead of singular "they". "He/she", if slightly clunky, ought to be unobjectionable and understandable to everyone.

The solution to this, however, should have been to edit the post further into "he/she" rather than rolling it back to "zie".

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    $\begingroup$ He/she would be utterly unacceptable, as it changes the meaning substantially. "They" would be rather better. My view on the matter is that if someone chooses to use a certain word in an obviously intentional way, that word should not be changed unless it generates a mathematical error. My handle is far from pseudonymous, as my first name is David and my last name is Feuer (shortened from Feuerwerger, a variant of Feuerwerker). I don't, however, see how my name is the least bit relevant to the discussion. $\endgroup$
    – dfeuer
    Dec 4, 2011 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ I echo dfeuer's sentiment that he/she [I include s/he in the same category] is not an acceptable replacement. I disagreed with this answer. $\endgroup$
    – Srivatsan
    Dec 4, 2011 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ @dfeuer: could you explain how you think "he/she" changes the meaning? It is completely opaque to me how your "zie" would mean something else (which is a probably another argument that you shouldn't use it). $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2011 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Henning: I suspect it has something to do with gender binarism... $\endgroup$
    – Zhen Lin
    Dec 5, 2011 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm: Indeed, Zhen Lin hit the nail on the head. $\endgroup$
    – dfeuer
    Dec 5, 2011 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ Today is the first time I have ever heard the words "zie" and "hir", and I would normally assume that "zie" was German, and "hir" was misspelt. $\endgroup$
    – daviewales
    Jun 18, 2013 at 1:16

Some of us are members of communities where such pronouns are normal parts of speech. I use them in my writing all the time, and am used to seeing others use them. They are part of my normal dialect (in written English, anyway; I use them far less commonly in the spoken language).

If we accept Indians using doubt to mean "query, question" (and we do), why not similarly allow other dialects of English?


As a new user with an interest in this topic (and this is the only thread search result for "pronoun"), I ask if the following edit type would be seen as offensive or annoying:

Suppose one is talking about a hypothetical student. If an answer has the following sort of language "But he overlooks the $x$ dependence in his solution. But if he had done it correctly it could have worked", can we edit the pronouns to they / their? That is, the hypothetical student is automatically assumed to be male, and we edit to make it gender neutral.

Personally, I'm not sure why someone would take such an edit personally. However, modifying the language in this way leads to a more inclusive nature in a community.

Of course, such edits should have the description field filled in as such.

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    $\begingroup$ I for one would find such edits very annoying. There is no "automatically assumed to be male" -- it's only there if you choose to read it as such. It is a convention just as valid as purportedly "more gender neutral" alternatives. Editing it out qualifies it as "wrong", while it isn't. It may not be what you would have written, but it's someone else's posts, and their decision to make. There's enough substantial editing to do instead of enforcing one's view on gender neutrality (which in itself is not beyond questionable). $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Jun 11, 2013 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ Posting an "answer" to an existing question isn't a good way to ask a follow-up question. I suggest that you post a new question and reference this one as providing context. That has at least two benefits: more people will see it, and it can have multiple separate answers rather than a single thread of comments. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2013 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ "There is no "automatically assumed to be male"." You're wrong. " it's only there if you choose to read it as such." Well men see themselves reflected in the use of "he, his, him,...", and hardly think to object. Are you in any position to speak for women's experience with those terms? Personally, I have to be in a sort of ongoing "translation" mode to try and feel included "It is a convention just as valid as purportedly "more gender neutral" alternatives." This is your, male-centered opinion. So, since the convention works for you, there's no need to even consider change? $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Oct 27, 2016 at 22:26

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